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Frozen dessert report: naturally indulgent

When it comes to frozen desserts, taste trumps all. The indulgent category boasts a dizzying array of mouth-watering treats from rich ice cream and decadent frozen yogurt to sweet ice pops and comforting cakes and pies. And, recently, manufacturers have been throwing health into the mix, offering “better-for-you” points such as sugar-free, low-calorie and, increasingly, all-natural to appease discerning consumers who are weary of artificial flavouring and colours.

But now we’re at the point where health-conscious features have graduated to table stakes. They are no longer a key differentiator in the frozen aisles, says Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at New York–based Market Research. “There has to be a secondary draw. It’s not so simple anymore.”

In the U.S., the quest to stand out in the frozen category has translated into wacky ice-cream flavours such as Kroger’s Strawberry Peppercorn or Ben & Jerry’s Late Night Snack. The latter blend, inspired by late night TV host Jimmy Fallon, is made with chocolate-covered potato chips. “In Canada, we don’t have the volume for the niche flavours,” says Gina Kiroff, senior brand-building manager of Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s at Unilever Canada.

But some off-the-wall flavours could attract a mainstream audience. Kiroff says the Late Night Snack flavour is currently available in Canadian scoop shops. If it proves popular enough, it may graduate to Canadian grocery freezers. Some companies are already having success with unique flavours.

Take Chapman’s sweet and savoury blend called Cranberry Trailmix. It features cranberry frozen yogurt, almonds, pralined sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Or how about its Tiger Tail orange and licorice ice cream? “A real big winner for us is Chapman’s Tiger Tail,” says Dan Stezenko, co-owner of Thunder Bay, Ont., grocer Quality Foods.

Stezenko has made a few other observations in his freezer aisle as well. For instance, sales of traditional flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry have remained relatively flat across all brands. But there’s been a surge in demand for premium concoctions such as maple walnut and pralines and cream.

Dale Gordon, category director at Victoria-based Thrifty Foods, says that after vanilla, his next best-selling flavour is a premium blend by Island Farms called Denali Moose Tracks, which comes with rich chunks of nuts and chocolate.

Chef’s corner: Hot new items in the frozen aisle

Lava cakes: “They were a big trend in restaurants in the early 2000s. Then they disappeared and recently popped up in the freezer aisle at grocery stores.”

Chocolate pâté: “Chocolate pâté can be frozen, and you can do variations to suit all tastes.”

The demand for premium is one reason Unilever has just launched its Magnum brand of frozen ice cream novelties in Canada. Already popular in other countries, Magnum has high-end touches like imported Belgian chocolate, white chocolate and triple dipped bars. “If you’re going to have that pleasure experience, you don’t want to cut corners,” says Kiroff . Joel Gregoire, industry analyst at research firm NPD Group, confirms that “enjoyment” is now the primary motivator to consumption decisions in the frozen desserts category.

That said, he has noticed an interesting trend: over the past several years there’s been an upswing in the number of Canadians who are consuming frozen fruit as a dessert on its own. Frozen fruit’s share of the total dessert category is still quite modest at 3.5 per cent. But Gregoire says it’s noteworthy that people are now eating fruit as the main attraction, not just as an ice-cream topping. Gregoire also sees more Canadians indulging in ice cream beyond dessert-time.

That’s a trend Nestlé is tapping into with its new line of singleserve cups of popular products such as Häagen-Dazs Strawberry and Real Dairy Natural Vanilla. “Our focus is on expanding the occasions for ice cream and providing consumers with formats that are ideal for snacking,” says Ryan Denys, director of packaged ice cream at Nestlé Canada.

One of the strongest trends emerging in the frozen desserts category is all-natural products. “Our customers want real ice cream–not ‘frozen dessert products,’ ” says Gordon. Manufacturers have taken note, and Chapman’s even rolled out a clear ice pop in its Lolly line called the Stealth Rocket that has natural flavours and no artificial colours. In the U.S., Häagen-Dazs has been touting all-natural messaging with its “Five” line. As the name hints, it’s made with just five ingredients. Alas, there are no plans to introduce Five to Canada.

Beyond ice cream, sales of frozen pastries are steadily rising. Frozen pie volume is up 10 per cent over last year, and Gregoire sees potential for that to climb higher. Fewer people are taking the time to bake pies from scratch, he notes. Just under 35 per cent of Canadians bake their own pies now. Ten years ago half of them did.

Also giving pie sales a boost is the restaurant industry, which has dubbed pies the “food of the year.” It seems there’s room for their popularity to spill over into the freezer aisle. “Pies freeze very well so they are a good fit. But it may not be full-sized pies [popping up more in grocer’s freezers]; rather, it’s two-bite sweet or savoury pies that could be part of a dessert tray or served as a hot appetizer,” predicts Amy Snider-Whitson, president of Maple, Ont.-based food consultancy The Test Kitchen.

In an increasingly complicated category, one insight remains abundantly clear: if it doesn’t taste good, forget about it.

Top 4 merchandising tips

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1. Stick to planograms. “If you let someone at the store level fool around with the freezer layout, they wind up favouring their own favourite flavours,” says Dale Gordon at Thrifty Foods. Relying on planograms prevents subconscious favouritism.

2. Be cool to your equipment. If ice cream partially melts and refreezes,
it changes texture. “And quite often consumers won’t bother letting the stores know,” says Quality Foods’ Dan Stezenko. So keep your freezers in tip-top shape.

3. Cross-promote desserts. Quality Foods puts up displays to promote fresh pies near the vanilla ice cream in the freezer section. It has helped contribute to a spike in ice-cream sales.

4. Don’t let the doors get you down. Manufacturers like it when brands are each given their own freezer door. But Gordon thinks it makes more sense to give each SKU the space proportionate to its sales. Don’t worry if you wind up with several brands behind the same door, he says.

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